Extremism, Violence, & The American Experiment

In contemplation of The Biden-Harris Administration’s near impossible task ahead of them, an article that aims to spark reconsideration of how the ideas of Extremism and Violence should be viewed and then employed to promote discussions about racism and political change in the United States…

by: Frederick Foote

The arrival of the Biden-Harris Administration is, for much of the nation, a desperately needed and most welcome sea change from the previous president. On Inauguration Day, the challenging task of undoing the damaging rhetoric and actions of the prior administration began, and it was extremely telling to the state of the nation that concepts of extremism and violence were persistently called upon in President Biden’s inaugural address. The goal of this article is to spark reconsideration of how these ideas can be viewed and then employed to promote discussions about racism, violence, and political change in the United States.

Extremism

1the quality or state of being extreme.

2advocacy of extreme measures or viewsRadicalism.

Newly elected President Biden made two references to extremism in his inaugural address. In the first, he selected political extremism as one of the threats the country must confront and defeat. “And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” His second comment echoed his first, stating, “Uniting to fight the common foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence.”

The President’s use of political extremism and extremism in this manner suggests that extremism is inherently wrong, criminal, or immoral. However, if one were to take a step back and in contemplation of the history of the United States, extremism was essential to the country’s conception. Revolution is a, if not the, most extreme political act. On the fourth of July, we celebrate the success of America’s political extremism. Without political extremism, these United States would not exist. War is another extreme political event. Historians say our Civil War was necessary to preserve the Union. Most Americans would accept these two extreme political events as positive, necessary, and even progressive.

And so, I do not believe the President is speaking of defeating the political extremism that supported the U.S. insurrection against Great Britain or the Union battles to suppress the rebels. There is a disconnect here, one that should compel Americans to ponder exactly what President Biden means by extremism, and how we should talk about it, as the extremism label has also applied to slave revolts and individuals and organizations leading the Civil Rights Movement. Slaves and slave owners might both agree that these uprisings are extreme political acts. However, slaves may describe their actions as liberation struggles. The slave owners would define these events as insurrections.

Colin Kaepernick ignited a firestorm of criticism, a flood of hatred, a presidential rebuke, and the loss of his job because he knelt during the national anthem to demonstrate his opposition to police brutality and racial injustice. Many white Americans saw Kaepernick’s kneeling as extremely offensive, while many others, including a vast swath of People of Color, saw it as another nonviolent tool in the Black Americans’ liberation toolbox, yet I doubt if President Biden means to imply that it is his goal to defeat liberation struggles.

Extremism is positive or negative depending on the viewpoint of the observer, or the one writing that particular history. And the observer’s evaluation may change over time. The idea of “fighting political” extremism should be rethought in this light, or, perhaps, restated in some instances as the fight against unlawful violence.

Violence

1athe use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy.

ban instance of violent treatment or procedure.

2injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanationOutrage.

3aintense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force the violence of the storm.

bvehement feeling or expression FERVOR alsoan instance of such action or feeling.

ca clashing or jarring qualityDiscordance.

4undue alteration (as of wording or sense in editing a text).

President Biden inaugural address held within it three alludes to violence, one I have already introduced:

1. “Uniting to fight the common foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence.”

2. “So now, on this hallowed ground where just days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.”

3. “And here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, and to drive us from this sacred ground.”

Violence is a complicated matter in the United States. In one place in particular, it rattles the nation from within — our homes. The most pervasive violence in the United States is domestic violence, with more than ten million victims a year.  On top of that, in 2019, there were an estimated 1,203,808 violent crimes. Any program or policy to address violence should place a priority on domestic violence. However, there is no mention of domestic violence in Biden’s speech, and also, if we are going to be taking aim at violence in the United States, America’s obsession with guns must be considered. In 2011 467,321 crimes were committed using a firearm. Between the years of 2015 to 2019, gun deaths averaged 38,826 per year. The level of gun violence in the US is at least 25 times higher than in other comparable countries. Again, there is no mention of gun violence in Biden’s speech.

Many African Americans feel terrorized by law enforcement with a license to kill, brutalize, detain, and arrest Black and Brown people at will. This historical pattern of abuse is not the violence referenced in Biden’s speech, and thus, Biden’s speech cannot be looked at as a comprehensive plan to “defeat” violence, but rather about the right-wing “extremist” attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. However, the White man’s right to take up arms in violation of the law is extensively documented in our history of lynching. These were not extreme events. Between 1882 and 1968, there were nearly 5,000 lynching’s in the United States. Some of these were White community festivities with picnics, photo opportunities with the deceased, and the collection of body part souvenirs. The perpetrators’ identity was common knowledge, and law enforcement frequently partnered in  these murders. Law enforcement rarely prosecuted these heinous crimes. The local and state governments refused to protect their Black citizens. To this day, the federal government has failed to provide an anti-lynching law. It is difficult to define lynching as extreme when there is this level of government support for 139 years. 

Violence is so prevalent in the United States that it is the norm and is labeled as extreme only when the body count reaches double digits, or the victims are celebrities. We desperately need a strategy to confront our violence, as violence by armed white males is an American tradition, as is the tendency of law enforcement to ignore or encourage these activities when they are directed at unpopular groups. This is not extremist behavior. Unfortunately, this is normal operating procedure. Racism in America is not, nor has it ever been, extremist behavior — it is institutionalized, pervasive, and accepted, denied, or ignored by much of the majority population. Giving our new president every benefit of the doubt, his stated approach to attacking extremism and violence fails to understand the nature of extremism, violence, and racism in the United States. Without a shift in perspective on racism, white power, violence, and extremism, the Biden-Harris Administration may have a very difficult time meeting its goals on social justice, and enacting the change so desperately needed in America.

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